Dec. 7, 2003. 01:00 AM
JIM BYERS
SPORTS REPORTER

Windsor native converted for love PGA card unlikely after dreadful day

WINTER GARDEN, Fla.—It's 4:30 p.m. following a pressure-filled day on the golf course. Most of the men here trying to qualify for the Professional Golf Association Tour are dissecting their games over a beer in the lounge or pounding practice balls on the range, trying to gain that elusive edge that will get them on to the PGA circuit and into the big money for 2004.

But over in a quiet corner of the Orange County National Golf Club, just visible behind a gold minivan, a tall, skinny guy with a trace of a goatee is standing silently on a dark blue swatch of embroidered carpeting, his arms folded and his eyes gently closed. A few minutes later, he opens his eyes, gets down on his knees and prostrates himself towards the east. Towards Mecca.

It's tough enough being Muslim in central Florida, where necks tend to be a shade beyond pink and attitudes towards minorities aren't always friendly. Being Muslim on the PGA Tour, a bastion of rich Republicans, is something else entirely.

But if being Muslim in an overwhelmingly WASP environment has been tough on Windsor-born golfer Ahmad Bateman, he doesn't let it show.

On a day when he chunked one of his drives into a lake like a weekend duffer and ballooned to a five-over 77, Bateman was still patient enough to talk about the life of a journeyman pro most Canadians know little about.

The 42-year-old holds U.S. and Canadian citizenship, having moved to Detroit when he was 4 and to southern California at the age of 16. But in attitude and approach to foreign policy — something he'd rather not delve into too deeply — he's clearly more comfortable with the Maple Leaf than the Stars and Stripes.

"You get yahoos all over the world, people who say, `Let's get all the Ay-rabs and nuke 'em,'" that sort of thing. You certainly get those in central Florida. But my wife (Shinta, a native of Indonesia he met while playing on the Asian tour) started wearing her head cover six months after Sept. 11 and I have to say she hasn't told me that anyone has said anything to her.

"I think most people are educated enough that they don't accuse all Muslims of being violent because of Sept. 11, just like you can't say all Catholics are child molesters because of actions by a few priests,'' Bateman said.

Bateman said if anything, the golfers he plays with bent over backwards to support him after the terrorist attacks.

"I think other people realized there might be a backlash against Muslims, and quite a few went out of their way to be supportive. They said, `We're here to help if you need anything.' I was very impressed."

Bateman said it's hard to pray five times a day when he's on the golf course or on a busy travel schedule, which is most of the time. But he prays when he can and said God understands.

Bateman, whose given name is Daniel, met Shinta in Indonesia and fell in love. He wasn't particularly religious but said he promised Shinta and her family he'd investigate their faith. It struck a chord, and he converted almost 10 years ago.

"I don't want to bash other religions, so I'll just say I like the basic tenets of Islam. It's based on the same beliefs that 1.5 billion people on this earth hold, and I think there's a certain wholeness to it," said Bateman, who usually paints a small red crescent moon on his Titleist golf balls.

Bateman left Canada at age 4 when his dad went to work at the airport in Detroit. But his grandmother still lives in Windsor and he has relatives in Mississauga and Sarnia.

"If I go to Canada for two days I sound like a full-blown hoser," Bateman said with a laugh. "It's pretty scary."

Bateman was a club pro in California in the mid 1990's when he opted to try to qualify for the PGA Tour.

He ended up on the PGA's junior circuit and did well until sidelined by back problems. He also made about $300,000 (U.S.) on the Asian Tour in 2000 but then was struck down by shoulder problems.

Three years later, his golf game has gone south and his money is about gone.

He was playing well here this week but suddenly yesterday started slicing the ball "like an 18-handicapper."

"I think I'm done," said the father of two young children. "I've played the Nationwide Tour (the current name for the PGA's developmental circuit) and I'm not interested in going back. I want to spend some time with my family.''

http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/Con...l=970081601705